Sometimes I read something and when I’m finished I think, “I don’t know if I really got this.” Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division is one of those books. I know I would benefit from a reread, and from simply sitting with it longer than my appetite for reading allows. Even after a book group meeting and discussion, I still don’t think I fully grasp this novel. It’s a mind-bending book-within-a-book. We go from 2013 to 1985 to 1964 and back again. Characters show up and disappear, characters experience and witness violence, there is humor and sadness and time travel and I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to take from all of this except that I was invested and surprisingly moved in the end.
The book starts out in 2013 with our hero, Jackson, Mississippi high-schooler City (Citoyen) Coldson, getting ready to compete with a few classmates and others in the Can You Use That Word in a Sentence Contest, which was “started in 2006 after states in the Deep South, Midwest, and Southwest complained that the Scripps Spelling Bee was geographically biased.” It’s nearly impossible to set up this novel, so here’s the Goodreads description:
The book contains two interwoven stories. In the first, it’s 2013: after an on-stage meltdown during a nationally televised quiz contest, 14-year-old Citoyen “City” Coldson becomes an overnight YouTube celebrity. The next day, he’s sent to stay with his grandmother in the small coastal community of Melahatchie, where a young girl named Baize Shephard has recently disappeared.
Before leaving, City is given a strange book without an author called Long Division. He learns that one of the book’s main characters is also named City Coldson–but Long Division is set in 1985. This 1985 City, along with his friend and love-object, Shalaya Crump, discovers a way to travel into the future, and steals a laptop and cellphone from an orphaned teenage rapper called…Baize Shephard. They ultimately take these with them all the way back to 1964, to help another time-traveler they meet protect his family from the Klan.
City’s two stories ultimately converge in the mysterious work shed behind his grandmother’s, where he discovers the key to Baize’s disappearance.
It’s not a long book, despite all the plot elements. There’s different typeface for what’s happening in the present day and what’s happening in the book City’s reading, which helps a bit to keep everything straight. It tackles serious subjects like race, class, and sexuality, with a sideways dark humor. It felt alternately playful and serious. Parts of it, especially at the beginning, reminded me of another book that made me feel dull-witted: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. (Not as outrageous, though.) I was not prepared for how absorbing this book is – it’s more like a speculative mystery than straight literary fiction. What happened to Baize? What is City’s grandmother hiding in her shed? Does everyone make it back to the present day? I was also not prepared for how emotional I would get reading it. I know. I cried, how shocking! 😀 But for most of the book I was kept at a distance by the book-within-a-book format and the dizzying prose, and then – BAM! The last 30 pages hit me hard.
Make no mistake, this book is using fantasy and humor and meta fiction to talk about race in the Deep South. A white man in conflict with City’s grandmother says a mouth full with one sentence.
“Y’all mad at something more than me,” he said. “I ain’t do it.”
There’s a powerful moment where City is in his grandmother’s church, and he’s wondering what the parishioners would think if they knew what his grandmother was doing. He says,
If they ever found out, maybe two of them would talk smack about my grandma, but I figured that everyone in the church had been treated like a visitor on their own road, in their own town, in their own state, in their own country. It wasn’t really complicated at all, but I’d never understood it until right then in that church. When you and everyone like you and everyone who really likes you is treated like a pitiful nigger, or like a disposable nigger, or or like some terrorizing nigger, over and over again, in your own home, in your own state, in your own country, and the folks who treat you like a nigger are pretty much left alone, of course you start having fantasies about doing whatever you can – not just to get back at white folks, and not just to stop the pain, but to do something that I didn’t understand yet, something a million times worse than acting a fool in front of millions at a contest.
As I write this, I’ve decided that I must read this book again. And I’ve got to slow down next time.